16 February, 2009

Let's Go, El Salvador!

Guess in which exotic locale I spent Christmas? No, not Paris nor Bora Bora nor the Maldives, but in Suchitoto, El Salvador. Suchi what? Yup, I admit to not knowing much about El Salvador myself, but that didn't stop me from going there on a three-country swing through Central America for the holidays - Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

Read below for 5 reasons why you should visit El Salvador, adapted from an article I wrote which can be accessed here.

Tourists, what tourists?

In contrast to the numerous tour buses disgorging passengers in Costa Rica or the expat communities that have sprouted in Guatemala, Westerners are still a rare sight in El Salvador. At times I felt like we were the only foreigners in town, until I spotted an elderly American couple browsing the market stalls in Juayua, and a group of Europeans in Suchitoto - hardly the avalanche one encounters elsewhere. So, if getting off the beaten path and escaping from hordes of guidebook-clutching tourists is your thing, El Salvador fits the bill.

Nice, friendly locals

For the most part, the only locals tourists interact with are those who work in the hotels, restaurants, and retail stores they frequent. Not so in El Salvador. If you speak even a tiny bit of Spanish, then chances are you will soon be chatting away with Salvadorans. Still unjaded by the
presence of foreigners, they are curious about your background and why you visited their country.
At the crowded food festival in Juayua, the matriach of the family seated at the adjoining table initiated a conversation with our group, and as the only one with Spanish language skills, I engaged in conversation with her for almost half an hour! The same thing happened in Suchitoto - I wandered into a modest hostel with gorgeous views of Lake Suchitlan, and shot the breeze with the husband and wife team who owned the place. Don't be surprised if Salvadorans mention a relative or two living somewhere in the United States, such is the size of their diaspora in our country.

Greenbacks rule

Annoyed at the hassles of lining up at the currency exchange window and tired of paying conversion fees? Here's a little-known fact. El Salvador has phased out the colon and now uses the US dollar as the official currency. It's just like being back home in the United States! So just bring your greenbacks, and with the relatively low cost of meals and items, you'll be pleasantly surprised at how far your dollars go in El Salvador.

Color, color everywhere

The town of La Palma, in particular, is a souvenir hunter's delight, with countless stores offering high quality hand-crafted and brightly-painted wooden souvenirs ranging from crosses to jewelry boxes to display figurines. Not to mention the traditional Mayan woven textiles that come in a virtual rainbow of colors.

However, not only are the souvenirs colorful, but the towns are too. Numerous murals depicting scenes from everyday life adorn walls and light posts in La Palma that are pleasing to the eyes and more importantly, convey the pride of Salvadorans in keeping their surroundings tidy as well as prevent these walls and light posts from being defaced with graffiti.

Juayua, in keeping with its status as one of the more attractive towns along the famed "Route of the Flowers", also has colorfully-drawn flowers and animals adorning its light posts. Only in El Salvador have I seen this.

It's all natural.

El Salvador offers a plethora of activities. Where to begin? For active types, how about a strenuous hike up the dirt road leading to El Pital (2730 meters), El Salvador's highest peak? For something truly once in a lifetime, how about a ride on one of those Vietnam War-era helicopters
that soars high above the volcanoes dotting the landscape, and gives a magnificent peek at the crater of Volcan Santa Ana? Don't worry, it's safe - the Air Force provides the helicopter! More laid back types can content themselves by taking a lancha on Lake Suchitlan and marvelling at the birds that inhabit the islands.

Or visit Los Chorros, a series of waterfalls about a half-hour ride outside Juayua, for a quick dip in the freezing, crystal clear water. Caffeine addicts will surely grab the chance to visit any one of El Salvador's coffee farms to learn the intricacies of how the coffee beans make their way to our local Starbucks. As you can see, the options are endless - and yes, I did all of these activities in one week!

Now that you're read this far, have these reasons to visit El Salvador convinced you yet?

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